Keir Starmer’s keynote speech at the Fabian conference today was focused almost completely on foreign policy. The thrust of the Labour pitch was that Starmer is ‘pro-American but anti-Trump’. Given Corbyn’s tendency to see the United States at the Great Satan, this marks a huge shift in Labour’s foreign policy outlook. However, the speech was also classic Starmer and not in a good way: correcting the most obvious mistakes from the Corbyn era but going absolutely no further.
I should take a moment to applaud Starmer for at least pivoting Labour back to a foreign policy position that is sensible and won’t stand in the way of the party trying to win elections again. It is worth noting that while declaring that the party is pro-American and anti-Trump (a president no one considering voting Labour would support) is political obviousness at its most basic, Corbyn or his chosen successors would have struggled to do the same. That we have an opposition party without a suicidal foreign policy platform is not to be sneezed at.
Having got that out of the way, one has to wonder why Starmer always has to play it so unbelievably safe on anything policy orientated. He spent a lot of time in the Fabian lecture dumping on Trump, which is fine, but talk about open goals. Starmer then spoke of hosting the G7 conference and how ‘we need to seize this chance to lead again, just as Blair and Brown did over global poverty and the financial crisis.’ But there was no elaboration on what this ‘leading’ would look like in real terms. It’s all well and good to say the UK should take bolder foreign policy stances, but what is Starmer actually proposing we do in real terms?
For instance, does he see Russia or China as the bigger threat in the years to come? Or how should the West handle Iran in the post-Trump era? The speech left me none the wiser. Even bolder would have been something in Starmer’s speech about Israel. Given the anti-Semitism scandal that took place during his predecessor’s reign, this should have provided the Labour leader with a fantastic opportunity to not only differentiate himself from Corbyn in a way that might have had real cut-through, but also to heal some old wounds along the way.
Yet there would have been risks involved in tackling these subjects and it seems that Starmer viewed these as too great to handle. Just complain about Boris cosying up to Trump and the 48-hour week being imperilled instead. Don’t rock the boat any more than you have to.
To be fair, Starmer did announce that ‘I’m going to be saying much more in the coming weeks about Britain’s role in the world’, putting in his excuse for the lack of detail. Still, addressing a few of these challenges today was not asking the world of the Labour leader.
Starmer does deserve credit for mentioning Brexit, when it would have been safer to avoid the entire topic. Yet his speech just muddied Labour’s relationship with the EU even further. The Labour leader talked about Boris Johnson wanting ‘something completely different on Brexit’ to him, yet what that difference might be was vague. Tory Brexit is bad, Labour Brexit is good – but what is Labour Brexit exactly? Starmer suggested he wanted a ‘close economic relationship’ with the EU; this suggests re-negotiation of the deal, which Starmer has already said flat out he will not do. It seems the Starmer is trying to speak to two audiences here, telling Leavers he respects the fact that the Boris deal is the final Brexit settlement, while winking at Remainers that a government led by him would move us closer to the EU, perhaps back into the single market.
It is worth contrasting Starmer’s speech with Anneliese Dodds’ lecture earlier this week, in which the shadow chancellor laid out a new direction for Labour in economic terms that was braver than advertised. Starmer’s speech today was disappointing by comparison, providing nothing that was really shocking or unexpected. It did what it needed to do and no more. This appears to have been by design.
After today, I feel I can now definitively define the question that Starmer’s leadership of the Labour party wants to test: is simply being a lot better than Corbyn and attacking Boris on competence enough to win the next general election, or the very least, put Labour in a position to form a government with the SNP? Or is something bolder needed? Keir Starmer seemingly has a hypothesis that playing it relatively safe is enough to win next time out. Only time will tell if he’s right.